Varicose veins are usually caused by weak vein walls and valves.
Inside your veins are tiny one-way valves that open to let the blood through and then close to prevent it flowing backwards.
Sometimes the walls of the veins become stretched and lose their elasticity, causing the valves to weaken.
If the valves don't function properly, this can cause the blood to leak and flow backwards. If this happens, the blood will collect in your veins, which will become swollen and enlarged.
The reasons why the walls of the veins stretch and the valves in your veins weaken are not fully understood. Some people develop the condition for no obvious or apparent reason.
A number of things can increase your likelihood of developing varicose veins, including:
- being overweight
- being pregnant
- other conditions
Women are more likely to be affected by varicose veins than men. Research suggests this may be because female hormones tend to relax the walls of veins, making the valves more prone to leaking.
Hormones are chemicals produced by the body, and changes may be caused by pregnancy, premenstrual syndrome or the menopause.
Your risk of developing varicose veins is increased if a close family member has the condition. This suggests varicose veins may be partly caused by your genes (the units of genetic material you inherit from your parents).
See genetics for more information about how you inherit your physical and behavioural characteristics.
As you get older, your veins start to lose their elasticity and the valves inside them stop working as well.
Being overweight puts extra pressure on your veins, which means they have to work harder to send the blood back to your heart. This can put increased pressure on the valves, making them more prone to leaking.
The impact of body weight on the development of varicose veins appears to be more significant in women.
Some research suggests jobs that require long periods of standing may increase your risk of getting varicose veins. This is because your blood does not flow as easily when you are standing for long periods of time.
During pregnancy, the amount of blood increases to help support the developing baby. This puts extra strain on your veins.
Increased hormone levels during pregnancy also cause the muscular walls of the blood vessels to relax, which also increases your risk.
Varicose veins may also develop as the womb (uterus) begins to grow. As the womb expands it puts pressure on veins in your pelvic area, which can sometimes cause them to become varicose.
Although being pregnant can increase your risk of developing varicose veins, most women find their veins significantly improve after the baby is born.
In rare cases, varicose veins are caused by other conditions. These include:
Last updated: 17 November 2015
- a previous blood clot
- a swelling or tumour in the pelvis
- abnormal blood vessels
Continue to next section: Diagnosing varicose veins